Pain and the Perfect Storm


A perfect storm has been brewing across the United States—and in Oregon, in particular—and most of us haven’t even noticed.

Turns out managing pain on a daily basis is killing us.


What’s noteworthy about the pain management crisis is that the blame crosses all sorts of boundaries.

We all-too-readily blame individuals for their addiction to pain-killers, and we quickly blast pharmaceutical companies for promoting drugs.

Physicians, too, shoulder some of the blame, in part because states like Oregon require them to ease their patients’ pain or face punishment.

One doctor told me Oregon tracks pain patients, and if they report their pain hasn’t eased, then the physician is called on the carpet.

Today’s New York Times reports that opioids—which, like OxyContin, are widely used to treat pain—were blamed for 37 percent of all fatal drug overdoses in 2013.

Drug overdoses, alcoholism and suicide are killing off Baby Boomers at significant rates.

While Boomers in most countries are living longer than ever before, aging folks in the US are dying sooner—at least those in the working class.

Columnist Richard A. Friedman says death rates from prescription opioids “increased more than fourfold between 1999 and 2010, dwarfing the combined mortality from heroin and cocaine.”

Prescription pain-killers jumped dramatically in the 1990s when Perdue Pharma developed a slow-release OxyContin pill, “perfect for a population of patients who were suffering from chronic pain,” according to the Huffington Post.

Sales shot from $48 million in 1996 to nearly $1.1 billion four years later, according to a scientific study.

When Purdue Pharma introduced OxyContin in 1996, it was aggressively marketed to doctors.

The slick campaign downplayed addiction, “So the medical community was taught to believe that addiction to opiates was relatively rare,” said one physician.

As a result, we are facing a crisis in which our friends and neighbors are dying from addiction.

“The consequences,” Friedman writes, “are staggering.”


Artwork credit: Mike Licht,


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in addiction, affordable care, american indian, health, journalism, mortality rates, opioids, science communication and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Pain and the Perfect Storm

  1. Rebecca Smith says:

    It seems a delicate balance between preventing unnecessary addiction and overdose and doctors having the tools, and the incentive, to help people in chronic pain. A dear friend of mine suffers from chronic pain and has a huge struggle being adequately treated, even in Oregon.


    • Chronic pain seems a different beast–and requires care. Short-term pain has been over-managed and the data in the 1990s convinced doctors, but newer data show that the heavier drugs don’t work any better than anti-inflammatory drugs you can get over the counter. I hope your friend is getting the help needed.


  2. Stevie B says:

    Addiction is a bandage for unhappy people…A cover-up for deficient values. Unfortunately American society has alot of misplaced values that breed this rise in Opioid dependency. Natural remedies and self-care is undermined in our health care system as well. This bears the question: Is the cure for pain a “mind over matter” type of issue or do we need prescription pain killers to cope? Maybe we place too much value on being “happy” and “pain-free”? These dependencies have softened our citizens. What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker. Are you feeling discomfort, depressed, fatigued?…Ever tried drugs? You define your own fragility. Pick yourself up and carry on.


    • Seems that the dependency–at least in Oregon–has fallen disproportionately upon folks in lower socioeconomic strata and my understanding is that being overweight, diabetes, high blood pressure–issues that affect the poor–also cause pain to bodies and bones. Sad.


  3. I don’t know the present state of affairs, but engaged in the chemical dependency field some years back, we saw a tremendous number of addiction cases in nursing homes. Opioids were used to reduce workloads, and not necessarily medically indicated.


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